If you're an optimist, you could say Pitt showed Saturday that it can win in a variety of different ways. A week after coming out victorious in an offensive shootout against Duke, the Panthers ground out an ugly 14-3 win against Virginia. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win at the end of the day, and now Pitt it halfway to bowl eligibility.
On the other hand, if you're a pessimist, you could say that Saturday's effort was not the result of an improvement on defense by Pitt, but rather a staggering display of ineptitude by the Cavaliers' offense. Pitt's offense isn't the juggernaut it appeared to be against Duke, and will suffer through some fits and starts this year.
As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in between. Pitt's offense isn't going to score 58 points last weekend, but the defense did show signs of improvement against Virginia. With that, let's look at the positions...
Quarterback: Tom Savage definitely came back down to earth a week after lighting up the scoreboard against the Blue Devils. He finished 13 of 31 for 191 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Let's start with the positives: Most notably, his touchdown throw to Devin Street was an absolute thing of beauty to the corner of the end zone. Street was well-covered by the Virginia defensive back, and Savage dropped the ball perfectly into a spot where Street just had to flash his hands out to make the catch. It's passes like that that show what Savage is capable of, and gives the coaching staff plenty of reasons to be excited for his development as the season progresses.
As for the interceptions, it's hard to place the first one on Savage. It was a quick slant to Tyler Boyd on a timing pattern that Virginia's Demetrious Nicholson jumped at the perfect time and picked off. Savage put the ball where it needed to be and, if anything, maybe Boyd could've been a little more aggressive shielding off Nicholson and at least making sure the pass fell incomplete. In the end, though, you mostly just have to tip your cap to Nicholson for a nice play.
The second one is a little bit more on Savage. He thought he had Boyd open down the right side, and threw a pass that probably took a little bit too much time to get there (rarely a problem for him) and Anthony Harris was able to read the throw and make the jump. This was probably a case where Savage thought he had Harris looked off, but Harris was ready to jump the pass to Boyd as soon as Savage started throwing it.
The bigger problem for Savage Saturday was that he was under constant pressure from Virginia's front seven. He was sacked seven times and pressured on plenty more. I'll get into this more when I look at the offensive line, but it was clear that Savage never really got in a rhythm throwing the ball (like he clearly did against Duke). He left the game in the fourth quarter with "concussion-like symptoms" and it turns out did indeed suffer a mild concussion. Pitt said today though that he is expected to play against Virginia Tech.
Running Back: Not a great game for this unit. The running back trio of James Conner, Isaac Bennett and Rachid Ibrahim combined for just 67 yards on 24 carries. The longest run was Ibrahim's 16-yard carry late in the fourth quarter that effectively sealed the game for Pitt. Conner averaged a paltry 1.8 yards per carry and Bennett just 1.0.
It actually looked like Pitt had some holes to run through early. Conner, in particular, had an 11-yard carry on Pitt's second drive of the game that looked like it could've gone for even longer. Soon enough, though, Virginia sealed things up and Pitt was getting no push up front to create space for the backs.
Perhaps the worst part about an ineffective running game, especially for this staff, is that it eliminates more chances to run the ball. Pitt ran the ball on 17 of its 26 first downs Saturday, and averaged just 1.4 yards per carry on those attempts. So when you run the ball and face an average of 2nd-and-9, that puts you in passing situations pretty frequently, and allows the defense to pin its ears back and rush the passer, as the Cavaliers did Saturday against Savage.
Looking at the split, though, it's becoming pretty clear that Conner is the top guy on the real-life depth chart (I expect the published depth chart will continue to have Bennett No. 1, and Bennett did in fact "start" Saturday). Conner had 15 carries to Bennett's five against Virginia, the second week in a row he had significantly more carries.
Wide receivers: It's hard for the receivers to do a ton when the offense as a whole struggled as much as it did, but they still found a way to get the job done. Boyd had seven catches for 111 yards, becoming just the second Pitt freshman receivers to have 100 receiving yards in three consecutive games (Antonio Bryant did it in 1999). They also used him a little bit more out of the backfield Saturday than we had seen in the past. Boyd said earlier this week that they were using more backfield packages for him and, sure enough, he was lined up behind Savage on the first play of the game (which ultimately didn't happen because of a false start on Scott Orndoff). He did take a pitch out of the backfield later in the game, but had just five yards on two carries.
Boyd also dropped a very catchable pass over the middle in the first half and fumbled early in the third quarter, showing that he is, in fact, human.
Street had four catches, but didn't really do much after the first-quarter touchdown grab.
Tight ends: No catches for any of Pitt's tight ends Saturday. Chryst said earlier this week that the tight ends would have to become more of a part of the passing game as the season progressed, but it would have to happen naturally on a game-to-game basis. I was a little surprised, though, with the offensive line struggling to protect Savage Saturday, that we didn't see more check-downs and quick passes to tight ends to help move the ball without having to take five- or seven-step drops.
Offensive line: Well, after three games of playing well above expectations, the offensive line Saturday looked more like we probably thought it would heading into the season. Pitt actually did a decent job containing mammoth Virginia defensive lineman Brent Urban, but struggled mightily with the Cavaliers' speed rushes on the outside. Linebacker Max Valles, in particular, wreaked havoc on Pitt's tackles and finished with 2.5 sacks on the day. Virginia cornerback Maurice Canady also had two sacks of Savage on blitzes that no one picked up.
I suspected coming into the year that Pitt would struggle with speed rushes on the outside, especially with two new starters (Adam Bisnowaty and TJ Clemmings) at tackles. What is surprising, though, is that this problem didn't really rear its head until this week and not so much in the opener against Florida State, when the line actually played pretty well. It'll be interesting to hear what Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Jim Hueber have to say this week about why Savage was under such constant pressure Saturday.
Defensive line: Aaron Donald had yet another good game for Pitt in the middle of the line. It's almost just becoming repetitive at this point, but Pitt needs Donald to play well if it wants the defense to succeed, and Donald played very well Saturday. He only finished with three tackles, but two of them were sacks of Virginia quarterback David Watford.
Defensive end Bryan Murphy once again did not play in this one, and Ejuan Price took his place. Both Price and fellow defensive end David Durham had pretty nice games Saturday. Defensive end is one of the key positions (along with linebacker) when it comes to stopping mobile quarterbacks. Watford certainly isn't as mobile as Duke's Brandon Connette or even Florida State's Jameis Winston, but he can still move around. Watford finished Saturday with 11 rushing attempts for just 15 yards. A lot of those negative yards came on Pitt's three sacks, but Watford only had 50 positive yards on the ground, which tells me that the defensive ends did a pretty decent job of keeping him contained in the pocket. Price also finished with two tackles for loss.
Linebackers: The linebackers also had a much improved game Saturday. Granted, Virginia's offense didn't come close to challenging Pitt from a speed perspective as much as Duke's did, but I still thought the linebackers did a much better job sticking with their guys in coverage. Shane Gordon didn't start with a rib injury, so freshman Matt Galambos took his place. Galambos finished the game with four tackles and didn't look out of place on the defense (which is no surprise, since he has played a decent amount this season.
Anthony Gonzalez finished as Pitt's leading tackler with 10, and that's a better sign than having a safety be your leading tackler (as has happened a lot with Pitt this year).
Secondary: This one is sort of hard to assess, because Virginia helped Pitt out a lot by dropping a ton of very catchable passes. Virginia coach Mike London said Sunday that his team dropped 10 passes in the game, which really is a pretty excessive amount. If Virginia had caught those balls, it may have been a different game.
That said, the secondary did do a good job of not giving up any big plays that could've swung the momentum in this game. Despite how inept Virginia's offense looked, it was still a two-score game throughout, and one long pass or run could've given the Cavaliers new life. Virginia's offense wasn't good, but Pitt didn't help them out at all and the secondary did their job.
Special Teams: If you like punting, this game was for you. The teams combined for 824 yards of punting (which is way more than the 387 yards of total offense they combined for). Pitt's Matt Yoklic averaged 45.0 yards per kick and, in a game where field position mattered, made the Cavaliers drive the length of the field if they wanted points.
Chris Blewitt missed his only field goal attempt, a 36-yarder late in the second quarter where it looked like he just pulled it wide left. Blewitt hasn't exactly been automatic this year, but there shouldn't be too much cause for real concern. Also, it's not like Pitt has a ton of other kicking options on the roster, so he's going to be the guy this season, for better or worse.
Coaching: This is sort of a tough game to look at from a coaching perspective, because there wasn't a whole lot Pitt was doing well on offense. As I mentioned earlier, the Panthers just could not run the ball on first down (or, really, at all), which makes playcalling a whole lot harder. Perhaps there's an argument to be made that Pitt should have kept trying to run the ball with Conner and Bennett, but there weren't very many signs that they were going to be successful. Chryst did do a nice job at the end of the game putting Ibrahim in on 3rd-and-8 (He has become the pretty regular third-down back) and trusting him with the ball. Ibrahim responded with a 16-yard run that effectively sealed the win for Pitt.
I know Virginia's offense looked terrible, but some credit also has to go to Matt House for getting his defense to bounce back after such a dreadful performance against Duke. I'm not sold that this unit is totally back to where it was last year, but it was a solid performance Saturday without any glaring mistakes.